Does Greta Thunberg make you feel uncomfortable?

JOYCE FEGAN3: Does Greta Thunberg make you feel uncomfortable?
Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg in New York on September 20, the day tens of thousands of protesters joined rallies in worldwide demonstrations calling for action against climate change ahead of a UN summit. Picture: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP

In a world where we trade on instant gratification and sensationalism, would Greta Thunberg have succeeded in bringing your attention to climate change had she whispered her message in a dulcet tone, using neutral language, asks Joyce Fegan.

THE backlash against Greta Thunberg was inevitable. The sensibilities of the moderate middle had endured the teenager’s emotion for long enough. Politicians and business leaders, heavily invested in maintaining the status quo, had seen her platform, audience and influence grow too large for their liking.

Something had to give.

“How a great message was ruined by the way it was delivered,” was one headline, taking aim at the Swedish teenager’s emotive speech in the UN this week.

“Greta Thunberg has no mandate,” was another.

And so began the inevitable tone-policing of the girl with the plait.

The writers of those headlines perhaps thought they had their finger on the pulse or that they were offering us some clever, never-before-thought insight into the supposed weaknesses of a 16-year-old schoolgirl.

They weren’t. They were just practising the age-old tool of tone policing.

When an argument is so strong and so scientifically supported, there is no way to debate it or defeat it. So in order to derail the traction it is gaining, tone-policers go after the manner in which it is delivered, because they are all out of other options.

Users of the age-old tactic focus on the emotion behind the message instead of the message itself. When all else fails, and facts are not on your side, go for the “emotionality” of the message, not the message itself. That way, you get to look like the moderate, reasonable one — and as human beings, it is very important that we are perceived that way, because it means we’ve more chance of being accepted into the madding crowd.

But the real reason some people employ tone policing is to allow them to regain control of a conversation that is moving in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. And, just like wanting to be seen as a reasonably minded person, what human being would ever choose discomfort over comfort?

If you frame Greta Thunberg as suddenly unreasonable by virtue of a tear on her cheek or a frown on her brow, then you, by default, are the sensible one and we’ll listen to you, not her. Mission complete.

Tone policing is used by those in positions of power and privilege in order to hold on to their power and privilege.

Every activist campaigning for every social justice issue ever has experienced it, including Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1963, while in Birmingham Jail, King wrote: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is… the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’ ”

What was more intolerable to the sensibilities of the comfortable American middle class during the civil rights movement — the hanging and burning of their fellow citizens or a black person attempting to override a ‘whites-only’ toilet or bus rule?

Yes, your ancestors worked unpaid for more than a century, and yes we made you toilet in our shed, and yes we whipped your bare back until the flesh below broke through the surface, but now that you’re on the hunt for equality please do not be as uncivil as to bring any kind of emotion or anger to the debate.

Yet when white men stand up in parliaments the world over and lob dehumanising insults across the chamber floor, with their faces gnarled and spit flying from the corners of their mouth, we do not bat an eyelid.

But Greta Thunberg is neither male, nor elected. She is young and she is female, and, yes, she has science firmly on her side, but she has committed messaging crime 101: Nobody likes a guilt trip.

Nobody likes a guilt trip and nobody likes to be told what to do or how to think, and they certainly do not like when you do any of those three things while laced with potent emotion.

Had Greta paid an elite communications strategist, known these rules, and then delivered the same message in a more palatable way, we would not be having this conversation. What would such a non-reaction say about us?

However, had it been leaked that Greta had a huge PR machine to help her with messaging — we’d be up in arms. And what would such a reaction say about us?

Climate change is not going to be moderate, and it is not going to be comfortable. No great social change has ever been sparked from a state of lackadaisical moderation.

In a world where we trade on instant gratification, shock and sensationalism, would Greta Thunberg have ever succeeded in bringing your attention to climate change had she whispered her message in a dulcet tone, using neutral language?

Have you read any of the executive summaries of the last three UN reports on climate change? Or do you know of them because Greta has quoted some of their key facts in one of her speeches.

WE DON’T have Greta to demonise, we have her to thank for bringing our attention to climate change and we will all benefit if we make the necessary changes.

Instead of wasting precious time dictating how Greta may and may not express herself, what useful thing could we have done instead? Lobbied for legislation? Talked to your local supermarket about their plastic packaging? Organised a car pool or cycled to work?

Any time spent tone policing is time spent away from the solution, and Greta might not know about the ins and outs of strategic messaging, but she knows a distracting tool when she sees one.

Under a smiling photo on Instagram, onboard her boat back to Europe, the schoolgirl with the plait called all our bluff.

“It seems they will cross every possible line to avert the focus, since they are so desperate not to talk about the climate and ecological crisis.”

Which camp do you want to be in? The “moderate” one that critiques the emotionality of a perfectly valid argument or the one that is sensible enough to listen to science and clever enough to take action while we still can?

As always, the choice is yours.

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